Theatre: Going liberal on the drama

Well-meaning plays with wishy-washy dramatic credentials can leave actors with little to get their teeth into

Ibsen has a lot to answer for. Ever since his issue dramas took hold, dramatists have lined up to write "problem plays" in which a difficulty or decision is debated with characters mouthing positions. Audiences are then left to make up their minds as to whether or not they agree with the theory as propounded by the playwright who has usually tipped the scales in one direction. Critics are very happy with this mode of writing as it enables them to abandon the difficult task of dramatic criticism and air their own opinions of the matter in question.

At its worst, this leads to the "good idea/bad play" syndrome. Take Burning Blue from a couple of years ago. The premise, the absurdity of the US position on gays in the military, had a sincerity and urgency which was entirely laudable. Unfortunately, the ludicrous sentimentality, dreadful characterisation (the runaway winner of Worst Roles for Women in the West End award) and the need for the play to illustrate a thesis flattened all the good intentions.

All of which escaped most commentators who fell over themselves to wave their liberal credentials in public. Sorry, but I thought the job was about assessing plays. Similar problems occurred with Art which, The Guardian informed us, is not a good play because it apparently implies that modern art is a bad thing. It doesn't, of course, but even if it did, unless you're a gallery owner, that's no way to judge a play.

Of all the art forms, drama is least open to dogma, primarily because it deals with people who tend to be full of chaos, confusion and contradiction, which sadly few playwrights are capable of capturing. Too many are too busy writing undercharacterised ideas which leaves actors trying to spin straw into gold, fleshing out roles with texture and humanity.

Although it always sounds phoney when actors tell you they love doing Shakespeare or the classics, great language and rich characterisation is a joy after thin material. It's also why, having played the French wife in a reading of Phyllis Nagy's new play Never Land, Sheila Gish said she would walk over broken glass to play the role. Her wish came true. If her recent form is anything to go by (did you see her Olivier award- winning, vodka-slinging Joanne in Company, or her imperious and hilarious actress in Playhouse Creatures?) the new year is about to start with a bang.

In preview at The Royal Court at the Ambassadors (0171-565 5000), opens Tues